Forest Rogers is an artist who has managed to trigger a multitude of simultaneous feelings when I look at any of her sculptures, from a tender melancholy to musings on deeply ancient powers and the many faces of grace. On occasion contradictory responses can even arise; playful characters often suggest there is more going on beneath the surface. It seems I’m not alone in responding so strongly to her works. Though she is quite a private person, Forest Rogers’ handmade sculptures have spoken to millions of fans around the world.
When I was given the opportunity to contact Forest for an interview it was, I admit, a small dream come true. She responded by showing a warmth and gentle humour that made her not only easy to talk to, but unveiled new layers that only solidified my respect for her as both an artist and person. A multi-award winning sculptress (‘The Morrigan’ – featured below – most recently won this year’s Spectrum, IBA & Chesley awards) Forest will continue to share her experiences with us in vast and exciting new ways.
Natalia: I believe you grew up in a very creative household, what was that like?
Forest: A good [question] and for me, complex and double-edged.
There’s a photo of my artist mother, Lou Rogers, helping me sculpt a sand-toad on the beach when I was two or three. She drew me wondrous, nude paper-doll trolls with multiple heads. I found some of them recently, and thought, no wonder I’m like I am. For herself, she painted towering, alien beings. My father Harry was a painter, and my grandparents had a house like a time machine. There was a bookcase in a dark upstairs hall, full of storybooks illustrated by Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Dulac and others. I spent hour upon hour sitting on the floor exploring those shelves during Christmas visits. Musty book fragrance, transporting images. I feel I rummage the universe for my ideas the way I used to search for treasures in that house.
However, when I was five months old, my father drowned himself. It blew up our world, of course, and ricocheted down my mother’s lifetime and mine in ways that make me almost physically ill when I look back. The older I get, the more clearly I perceive that. [An] irrevocable moment, shrapnel still flying decades later. I am sure that is true in many lives.
As an artist, the question becomes, what can you turn it into, what are the alchemical uses of sorrow, how do you transmute pain, what luminescence can you find in the deeps that might never have evolved in the normal light of day. I feel I only barely begin that work. Can you create a message in a bottle for others. It may be quite an oblique message, minor symbol for something that cannot be directly expressed, but one hopes there is a resonance that finds related hearts like a tuning fork.
N: How do you think your family life affected your own creativity?
F: Oddly, it’s difficult to think of any of it as ‘family life.’ My memory’s feeling isn’t so much of a domestic home as of my mother and myself suspended over a kind of ever-present abyss, like explorers on some planet where neither of us really belonged. When as a child I discovered my mother’s little book on Hieronymus Bosch, I could picture us living in one of those curious orbs of his, perilously balanced. Perhaps both she and I had to work to create our own worlds to stand on, something that in its strangeness gave us sanctuary. Hers are different from mine but related, with bridges hung between.
N: There are these wonderful elements of fantasy within your works; what draws you to this style?
F: I would say it is because these tales that last are true. Good fantasy depends on truth the way humor depends on truth: truth in special guise, truth told slant, truth fit to sneak behind reason and reach the deeper parts of the mind and spirit.
N: How did you find your current path as a sculptress and artist?
F: An eclectic, roundabout way. While in Pittsburgh, studying for an MFA in costume design at Carnegie-Mellon U, I began working with paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to sculpt that museum’s model dinosaur line, which I did for more than 25 years. That led to many other commercial prototypes, from strawberry-scented squid erasers to silver napkin rings adorned with parrots and peacocks to toy whales for Monterey Bay Aquarium. Excellent sculpting practice. I have a lot of weird progeny out there. The National Institute of American Doll Artists (NIADA) introduced me to mixed-media figures. With my friend Pat Lillich (a wonderfully bizarre sculptor), I took creature workshops at AnatomyTools.com, taught by masters Andrew Cawrse, Carlos Huante, Jordu Schell and Mike Murnane. Highly recommended! It all went in the soup for what I am doing now.
N: Many of your most recent pieces are even more delicate, I love the way they seem to be floating away into the skies. Did it take much experimenting to hone these techniques?
F: One thing I love about mixed media is the constant experiment. Innumerable possibilities and combinations. I’ve been particularly interested in creating a sense of motion and/or floating weightlessness. It involves visualizing the way a thing would move in space and a degree of misdirection, as with magic slight-of-hand: a sturdy support, but where is it?
N: Are they as delicate as they look?
F: While they hope to be treated gently, I aim for sturdiness and safe shipping. Most delicate-looking parts are a bit flexible. Strong polymer, fibrous washi papers with acrylic gels, silk or some other combination of materials adapted to the purpose.
N: I aim to own one of your pieces one day so that’s good to know! Now looking back, if you could start your life all over again, would you change anything?
F: Ah, I would change almost everything, I think. But that would mean wiping out all that grew from this particular set of misadventures, since they were an integral part of the recipe. I ask myself whether some of us become what we are meant to be precisely because of our own unique set of mistakes.
N: If there is one piece of advice that you could give to your younger self what would it be?
F: Caution and fear are two different animals. While caution can be vital, acting (or not acting) out of fear can be disastrous. Do not let forms of fear push you or hold you back. I tell my older self that too.
N: On that note of not being held back, do you feel your work has developed much over the years?
F: Of course! I’d worry if it hadn’t. There’s progress by practice. And I feel that past projects and experiences are recombining and suggesting new permutations all the time. A cauldron from which to fish new things. I try to view everything as a step rather than a result. That helps keep me moving forward.
N: Have you created many collaborative pieces with other artists?
F: My biggest collaboration was working on a Russian Orthodox cathedral dome for which my mother designed the iconography, with a liturgical arts company out of Pittsburgh. My main job was painting a ring of twelve angels circling the dome, each with a fourteen-foot wingspan. We were about fifty feet up on scaffold. A team was gold leafing, and bits of gold fell like ash. A great bell struck the hours, yet it felt paradoxically timeless. Because we were painting icons whilst female and heathen, the Sect of the Old Believers declared us an Official Abomination!
I’d like to do more collaborative work down the road… abominable, perhaps, but in different ways.
N: How do you come up with the concepts for your sculptures?
F: Most mornings, over coffee, I scribble ideas very loosely on a pad of tracing vellum. It helps coalesce what I have swimming around my mind. I leave the drawings super sketchy because if I’m going to sculpt them I want to allow the piece room to talk back and transform. As to whence the concepts arise — if you took a book of folktales down in a submersible to the abyssal depths and read it there — sort of like that.
N: You are currently part of Krab Jab Studio’s group show Im’ago Primordialis in Seattle. The exhibition looks amazing!
F: Yes! I so wish I could’ve come to see it in person. Don Farrell (curator of the show) put so much thought and effort into curating it, Julie Baroh (gallery owner) is wonderful to work with, and Krab Jab is such an intriguing gallery. Honoured to be included!
N: Do you have any other upcoming shows?
F: I’m working on a piece for All That Remains, curated by Lana Crooks at the Stranger Factory in October, as well as a sculpt inspired by an Allen Williams drawing for a show centered on Allen’s work at the Krab Jab Studio this fall. Next year, I’d like to do Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, Illuxcon (its 10th anniversary!) and Monsterpalooza. I missed seeing my amazing colleagues this year.
N: We can’t wait to see what you create next. Looking at my notes, I can’t believe we’ve come to end of our interview already! Lastly I have to ask, do you have any aspirations as to where you want to take your art in the future?
F: Oh yes. I could say a bundle about reinvention, materials, scale, venues and all. I want to have more work actually available and in people’s hands. I’d like to create some installation-style worlds. The old love of theater is wiggling around in there. Masks. A number of people have kindly asked whether I teach: I’m honoured, but it’s challenging, since what I have to offer seems odd and fluid and hard to fit into a normal format. So I’m considering creating some eccentric, interactive sharing, maybe on Patreon. Download the ancient brain! On the other hand, I feel the hesitation of some soft-shelled crustacean emerging from its protective rock to cavort on the shore. Wild abandon between here and eternity?
N: Whatever route you take, Forest, we are excited to support you in your future endeavours! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me at beautiful.bizarre – it has been a genuine honour.